Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Probation recommended for NIC

Staff Writer | March 4, 2022 1:09 AM

North Idaho College has received an ominous report from a panel representing the institution's accrediting organization.

Probation and the potential for the state to step into a college oversight role are both being recommended.

The report, distributed on campus Thursday afternoon, listed scores of concerns, some serious enough to suggest the college's accrediting organization put NIC on probation.

The panel also recommends that the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities "inform the Idaho State Board of Education of the probationary status, and the serious threat to NIC accreditation if actions are not taken soon, and encourage the Idaho State Board of Education to implement supervisory oversight of immediate actions by the NIC Board of Trustees and administration to restore compliance with NWCCU Standards and Eligibility Requirements for accreditation.”

At the heart of several complaints cited by the fact-gathering panel is the leadership of Board Chair Todd Banducci.

Here are some of the biggest concerns listed in the 27-page report:

Governance Structure, Chief Executive Officer and Administrative Positions: Misgivings about the process used to select Interim President Michael Sebaaly have reduced his ability to effectively lead the institution, and the separation of the board of trustees relative to the day-to-day operations of the institution is not clearly delineated or operationalized.

Academic Freedom: Board Chair Todd Banducci’s political statements and role in questioning curricular content has had a chilling effect on faculty independence and diverse thought.

Institutional Integrity and Ethical Standards in Governance, Management, and Operations: The report refers to Banducci and other trustees' disregard for North Idaho College policies.

Physical, Technological, and Health Infrastructure: The panel concluded the institution has a communicable disease policy without an operational plan in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The effect is to leave students, faculty and staff susceptible to increases in COVID-19 cases and educational program disruptions.

Other observations and conclusions sent to the NWCCU:

• The board of trustees of North Idaho College is dysfunctional.

• Several resolutions of “no confidence” in the board have been issued by faculty and staff leadership bodies.

• The former president was fired in part due to a conflict with Banducci over separation of board decisions and institutional operations. This disruption was a major factor in the resignations of all three vice presidents and other senior administrative leadership.

• With the resignation of one trustee there remain four trustees with a gulf of disagreement; two trustees in each camp unable to form majority agreement or arrive at consensus.

• There is significant fear and mistrust of the board of trustees. Distribution of responsibility between the board of trustees and the institution is not clearly delineated.

• The board has continued to disregard North Idaho College policies including policies surrounding their own ethical accountability.

• Fear for tenure, health, job security and punitive public ridicule abounds among faculty and staff.

• Faculty report adjusting course content and assignments to make them less potentially controversial for fear of retribution by political factions supported by Banducci. This degrades the atmosphere of open discussion of ideas under the principles of academic freedom and undermines the institution’s responsibility to maintain “an atmosphere that promotes, supports, and sustains academic freedom and independence that protects its constituencies from inappropriate internal and external influences, pressures, and harassment.”

The panel found that the college is currently in compliance with standards and requirements regarding financial resources, yet the area needs improvement.

However, according to the report, the longer the board of trustees' issues continue, the greater the stress and potential nosedive of NIC finances in the short-term and long-term. Investigators concluded the area should be closely monitored by NWCCU to assess the ongoing financial impacts of the upheaval created by board actions.

Disruptions in NIC governance have resulted in the departure of critical leadership, a Moody’s change of prospects from stable to negative, losses of donors and uncertainty regarding future fundraising success.

The panel also found the college to be substantially in compliance with standards and eligibility requirements regarding human resources, but in need of improvement.

Given the significant turnover of administrators and the hiring of an interim president with little executive administrative experience, there is a significant concern regarding whether "the institution employs faculty, staff, and administrators sufficient in role, number, and qualifications to achieve its organizational responsibilities, educational objectives, establish and oversee academic policies, and ensure the integrity and continuity of its academic programs,” the report says.

Recommendations by the panel include immediate action by the board to:

• Review and affirm institutional policies defining appropriate board responsibilities, expectations and board member professional conduct and ethics;

• Adjudicate unresolved board grievances;

• Reestablish trust with the faculty and staff of North Idaho College by following all board policies as outlined, reinstating and consistently allowing for public comment at board of trustees meetings, demonstrating professional and courteous conduct at meetings and involving appropriate college stakeholders in policy development;

• And to complete the actions recommended by the Association of Community College Trustees consultant to rebuild trust and confidence.

The panel recommends the college “move aggressively” to rebuild leadership by hiring, as quickly as possible, a long-term president with full participation of faculty, staff, students and community members, as well as filling in the same manner the vacant/interim dean positions, and vice president position after the long-term president is identified.

According to the report, with the probation status, the NWCCU would create a Schedule of Compliance for restoration of full accreditation. If progress does not occur on this schedule, then NIC will be required to Show Cause for continued accreditation, according to the report.

Accreditation is needed for the college to remain in operation as it enables NIC to offer federal financial aid to students, ensure credits earned at NIC transfer to other institutions and allows the eligibility for NIC graduates to sit for licensure examination, according to NIC’s FAQ page.

The NWCCU peer panel recommended the NWCCU monitor actions of the college to assess movement toward compliance according to the schedule, as well as conduct a campus visit this fall.

In a change of plans, the NWCCU gave Sebaaly and NIC accreditation liaison officer Steve Kurtz access to the final peer report late Wednesday, rather than meeting first.

Sebaaly said the college has 10 days to prepare a response and then meet with the NWCCU’s executive committee. The NWCCU will then evaluate the final peer report recommendations, review the response and vote on recommendations and actions.

NIC will be informed of the NWCCU’s decision in a letter of action, the final statement, within 10 days of their vote.

While a date hasn't been set for the meeting with the NWCCU's executive commission, Sebaaly said in an email that the various 10-day timelines give him a sense they may see a conclusion to the current process and the letter of action by late March or early April.

“We have been through a turbulent time and reading the peer panel report will likely stir emotions for you. It did for me,” Sebaaly said in an email to the college. “Keep working hard for our students. We will get through this together.”

View the full report here.

This article has been updated.